Knife crime: how former offenders can make great mentors for at-risk teens

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Sean Creaney, Edge Hill University

It’s widely reported that there’s been an increase in street violence, particularly in London – with the number of knife and gun crimes rising. While the causes are complex and multifaceted, victims and perpetrators of serious youth violence often lack a relationship with a trusted adult.

One way to help reduce crime is to use ex-offenders as peer mentors. Those who have overcome adversity and stopped offending can act as positive role models for their peers – especially teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity.

My research found that young people on court orders really value building empathetic and collaborative relationships with professionals who are ex-offenders, and have first-hand experience with the criminal justice system.

When carefully selected, provided with extensive training and given tailored support, former young offenders can be uniquely well-equipped to help their peers in need of support. And they can encourage young people on court orders to engage with criminal justice services and make positive changes in their lives.

Positive peers

Peer mentors can offer advice and support to young people who are experiencing personal, social or emotional difficulties, because they have first-hand experience overcoming such problems themselves. Projects operating around the world offer proof that this can work in practice.

One approach in the US is to recruit ex-offenders as credible messengers who can build trust and inspire change among young people. These mentors, who have transformed their lives, are viewed as assets who can help motivate young people – who are often marginalised and disadvantaged – to make better decisions and desist from crime. The project has been shown to reduce re-offending and improve young people’s self-esteem.

Similarly, the St Giles Trust, based in London, works with young people exposed to or at risk of violence. Their SOS project carefully recruits ex-offenders to engage young people.

The effectiveness of this approach was borne out in my research: in 2016 and 2017, I spoke with 20 young people and 20 professionals from a youth offending service in England, which works with young people who get into trouble with the law. One young person in my study said:

…unless you’ve experienced that, you cannot tell them…you cannot relate to them. Unless it’s happened to you, or someone that you know, there’s no way you can fully understand how they’re feeling.

Teenagers who are at risk of committing crime or being drawn into gang activity may be reluctant to talk to authority figures. But if the person they’re speaking to is an ex-offender themselves, they may be more forthcoming. For example, another of my participants, Anthony (aged 17), spoke passionately about a trusting relationship he had built with one of his workers, who had experience in the care and criminal justice systems.

Anthony said his worker was non judgemental and able to empathise and offer guidance when he was in a difficult situation. He described how he has contacted his worker on many occasions in a state of panic and valued receiving emotional and practical assistance. Anthony described his worker as inspirational, and was keen to follow in his footsteps in the future, by securing a job which involves caring for others.

Another of my participants – Zain, aged 17 – was also inspired by his mentor:

I’d love to do his job. He sort of inspired me. Cos I know about his past, he knows about mine. And it’s pretty similar, do you know what I mean? Grew up on a bad estate, got into drugs.

The right choice

Yet within the justice system there is still some scepticm about whether ex-offenders can steer their peers away from crime.

There are challenges: young people may lack the ability to offer emotional and practical assistance to their peers who are experiencing mental health problems. For this reason, it’s crucial to provide ex-offenders with appropriate training and ongoing support.

What’s more, they may have their own unresolved traumas, which could make it more difficult for them to form constructive relationships with both their peers and professionals. And this is why it’s important for authorities to screen and select the right people.

Yet peer mentoring can be an antidote to the disconnected, unhearing and technocratic criminal justice process. And the young people who engage in mentoring can discover that they have talents and abilities they didn’t know they had.

Because they’re seen as role models, rather than authority figures, young people who are ex-offenders can forge positive and meaningful connections with their peers, to the benefit of both parties. Above all, mentoring gives young people who have overcome their own hardships a chance to help others do the same.The Conversation

Sean Creaney, Lecturer in Psychosocial Analysis of Offending Behaviour, Edge Hill University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Young gang members also at risk of developing post-traumatic stress disorder

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Grace Robinson, Edge Hill University

Until recently, researchers have associated post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with being a victim of trauma. Now, new findings from the US suggest that the act of killing or perpetrating violence could be even more traumatic than being a victim.

A condition often experienced by war veterans, PTSD can cause nightmares, flashbacks and feelings of isolation. But there is another group, which also suffers from high exposure to violence, that up until now has been largely overlooked: gang members.

Gangs and violence go hand-in-hand. For gang members, violence is a necessary evil – it helps them to build status and respect, and to exercise control over illegal drug markets. For young people, being involved in gangs poses a double threat: not only are they more likely to be the victims of violence and crime, they are often made to prove their loyalty to the gang by committing violence against others.

A traumatic youth

Physical, emotional or sexual abuse and neglect are all traumatic events, which increase the risk of developing mental health problems. Experiences of early childhood trauma are common among young people in the Criminal Justice System (CJS). Compared to the general population, children in the CJS are three times more likely to have mental health problems – often anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol dependence.

Trauma breeds trauma. US Marshall’s Service/Flickr., CC BY

There’s a two-way relationship between trauma and being part of a gang. Trauma increases the likelihood of joining a gang, and gang membership increases the risk of being exposed to trauma. Young people who associate with offenders or have issues with substance abuse are especially vulnerable to exploitation by gangs. When a young person joins a gang, they are exposed to the same sort of violence, victimisation and neglect which caused their trauma in the first place.

Like child soldiers in countries such as South Sudan, young people in gangs are often forced or coerced into perpetrating violence against others through initiations, turf wars and ongoing gang activity. Initiations can include sexual assault and being the victim or perpetrator of violence.

A lost generation

In one of the very few British studies to explore the link between gang membership, violence and mental health, Jeremy Coid and colleagues compared non-violent men, violent men (with no involvement in gangs) and gang members. As expected, they found mental disorders such as psychosis, anxiety, depression and drug and alcohol dependence to be much more prevalent among violent men and gang members than among non-violent men.

Gang members also had higher rates of drug dependency (57.4%) and antisocial personality disorder (85.8%) – a psychological condition which includes patterns of manipulation and exploitation of others. One of the criteria for being diagnosed with antisocial personality disorder is being exposed to violence before the age of 15. With many young people involved in gangs before this age, it’s unsurprising that many gang members are plagued by the illness.

Youth violence doesn’t just affect those involved in gangs – an estimated 75% of young people caught carrying knives having no connection to gangs. Figures from the Ministry of Justice suggest that between March 2015 and March 2016, the most common offence committed by young people was Violence Against the Person. This raises huge issues for the future mental states of many young people – not just those involved with gangs.

The ConversationWith the National Health Service already stretched and young people waiting up to 18 months for mental health treatment, the leaders of today need to make tackling youth violence a top priority – or face dealing with future generations who bear deep psychological scars.

Grace Robinson, PhD Candidate and Graduate Teaching Assistant, Edge Hill University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.